Lionsgate Reunites with Founder for TV Venture (Exclusive)

Jon Feltheimer & Frank Giustra

Sea to Sky has deals in place with "The War Room’s" R.J. Cutler and "Gone Baby Gone" author Dennis Lehane as well as a drama project about the Getty kidnapping.

Lionsgate is back in business with Frank Giustra.

The studio behind The Hunger Games and Mad Men is teaming with its founder and former chairman’s Thunderbird Films to form a new TV partnership to produce broadcast and cable fare. The 50-50 venture will be called Sea to Sky Entertainment, named after the Canadian highway (Lionsgate was named after a Canadian bridge), and already has deals in place with The War Room’s R.J. Cutler and Gone Baby Gone author Dennis Lehane

"The TV business is where I want to be,” says Giustra, known in recent years as a global financier and philanthropist who has given millions to Bill Clinton’s foundation. "Back in 2000, Lionsgate’s very small TV business was generating $8 million in revenue; now it’s a $400 million to $450 million business. So you can see what can be done if executed properly."

The one-time investment banker-turned-mining magnate launched Lionsgate in 1997 to capitalize on Vancouver's growing film industry. He stepped down as CEO in 2000 and sold most of his stake in the company three years later. "I left because I had a hunch that we were about to see a commodities boom, which we did, and so I started to focus on creating a number of companies in gold and other resources," says Giustra, who returned to the company's board in 2010.

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The new Sea to Sky pact comes mere weeks after Giustra became a major shareholder in Vancouver-based Thunderbird, a production, distribution and financing company that he has publicly committed to ramping up on the TV side. Lionsgate and Thunderbird will jointly manage the venture, which is designed to share production and distribution costs for all scripted projects picked up to series. In addition to mitigating risk, the arrangement will allow the company to diversify further into more network fare and other global-minded productions.

"Doing a deal like this enables us to stretch and reach and diversify," says Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer, who has been a champion of such partnerships including those with Televisa and with Paramount and MGM in the pay-cable venture Epix.

Still in its infancy, Sea to Sky has optioned the rights to the upcoming book An Uncommon Youth, a first-person account of the events surrounding the John Paul Getty III kidnapping in Italy in the 1973. Anne Thomopoulos (Rome, Camelot) will produce the project, which is being pitched as an eight-episode limited series for international co-production. The team is particularly enthused about the project's potential international appeal, given a story line focused on a wealthy American family living in Europe as the drama unfolds.

Among the other projects in the pipeline: an hourlong drama from Lehane, for which details are being kept tightly guarded, and a development and production deal with Cutler, with whom Lionsgate is already in business with on the ABC drama pilot Nashville. Many more deals -- a combination of one-off projects and larger pacts -- will follow, with about eight to 10 scripts expected annually. 

"One of the beauties of forming this venture is that it allows us to make some different bets and bigger bets on people with whom we enjoy working," says Lionsgate Television COO Sandra Stern. Lionsgate Television president Kevin Beggs adds that while the deal allows them to stretch financially, it won’t change how they land on projects: "We go through the same checklist that we do on all of our shows: Will it work internationally? Is there a packaged-media play? Is there a streaming play? Is there a rerun life?"

For its part, Lionsgate has seen its stock price soar since unveiling its $412.5 million acquisition of Twilight studio Summit Entertainment in early January. At press time, the company was trading at $13.65, with a value of more than $1.7 billion. As it has gone about integrating its staffs, some 80 Lionsgate employees were laid off March 9. “That was the main cut,” says Feltheimer, who suggests he’s otherwise “quite pleased” with the merger.


Twitter: @LaceyVRose